A few weeks ago I was made aware of a petition to stop an event being held at the WOW (Women of the World) Festival in London. The petitioners were angry and upset that the TED Talk “Rape and Reconciliation” had been programmed. I wrote a piece about why I felt the TED talk was problematic here:
Rape, Reconciliation and Peak Patriarchy
TED talks are supposed to offer blueprints and ideas for a more ideal world. Their tagline is ‘ideas worth spreading’…
Essentially it is two seemingly reasonably well off white people sharing a stage to tell the story of how the man raped the woman and how they reconciled and the victim forgave the rapist.
I signed the petition as I was shocked that WOW would have programmed an event that gives a platform to a rapist, especially in light of the fact that the rapist in question has had no legal consequences and the talk shows him in a very favourable light.
Even if you take only one aspect of this talk into account, the stated desire of Elva, the rape victim to broaden the talk away from rooms of women — that alone would indicate that a women’s festival was NOT the right place for this talk. Southbank run a BAM festival (Being a Man) and that would seem like a more natural place for an event like this to be programmed.
Last year there was outrage at the idea of Brock Turner touring universities to talk about alcohol and sexual assault. Now, a year on we are living in that world - that people rightfully found so distasteful . And we have organisers of a feminist festival giving space and publicity to a rapist. Kelly stated that Stranger was not getting an appearance fee from Southbank centre yet she failed to acknowledge the social and publicity capital that Stranger will gain from being on the Southbank Centre’s programme.
They may not be paying him money but he will profit in other ways. Stranger is on a book tour, promoting his co-written book of which he says he is donating “a portion” of the profits to charity. So whatever way you look at this Stranger IS profiting from raping a woman. And Southbank are facilitating that. How can Southbank stand behind platforming a man who is profiting from rape? They cannot of course remove his ability to profit from his crime but they do have the power to not give him a stage, audience and status that is associated with being connected to an organisation like Southbank.
Full disclosure here, I have a prior connection to WOW. I love WOW. I have been involved in WOW London as a mentor and I helped to programme the WOW festival in Derry-Londonderry. I personally know a few of the programmers at WOW London — and have no beef with any of them, I think they’re all amazing, inspiring women.
So I just can’t get my head around how the many, many problems with this talk got past so many brilliant people and it got to the point of being actually programmed. Amira Elwakil’s petition had over 2000 signatures — people who presumably like me could see why having such a talk at a feminist festival was offensive, inappropriate and upsetting. The petition and the other activists and survivors who engaged with Southbank about this were successful in having the event removed from the WOW programme, with Jude Kelly, Artistic Director of Southbank Centre releasing the following statement:
“Our WOW– Women of the World festival was created to be an open, balanced platform for discussion and debate on gender equality and the related critical issues that women and men struggle with every day. Rape is one of these critical issues and we need to shift the discourse around it, which too often focuses on rape survivors rather than rape perpetrators.
Following their Ted talk ( and their book South of Forgiveness ) we programmed survivor Thordis Elva to share her journey of coming to terms with the devastating impact of her rape and her decision to invite her perpetrator Tom Stranger on to the stage, to take full responsibility for his actions.
Having considered the importance of this debate for the widest possible public, and after having further conversations with survivors, support organisations and audiences, we have decided to stage this event on the Tuesday 14 March rather than on the Saturday 11 March as originally scheduled, to enable as many people as possible to contribute outside a festival context”.
Kelly says “Rape is one of these critical issues and we need to shift the discourse around it, which too often focuses on rape survivors rather than rape perpetrators.”
I agree that the discourse about rape should be widened and like Elva I also think that men must be exposed to and involved in these conversations. I am however deeply uncomfortable with facilitating the voice of a man who is profiting from rape.
The reason given for the rescheduling is “to enable as many people as possible to contribute outside a festival context”.
· Not to acknowledge how insensitive and misguided it was to book a rapist to speak at a feminist festival.
· Not to ensure that the festival is a safe space for victims and survivors of rape and sexual assault.
· Not as an act of good faith and bridge building towards WOW patrons and contributors who were shocked and upset by their decision to grant a platform to a rapist at the festival.
The contribution of as many people as possible (regardless of what that contribution is or from whom) is what Southbank are saying is of most value here and what apparently has guided this change. That to me demonstrates an upsetting lack of engagement with and understanding of the concerns of the thousands of people who signed the petition.
There are some things that I find notable by their absence in this statement that invite concern:
Has the festival’s view shifted with regard to the acceptability of granting a rapist platform at the festival? The sense I get is that it hasn’t but rather due to pressure from outside groups and individuals the decision has been taken reschedule. (The decision to reschedule and not cancel I feel supports this view but I would be eager to hear some clarification on this from Southbank).
Does the festival team view this as an error in ethos? Do they understand how this, for many attendees, calls into question the values of every aspect of the festival and undermines their confidence in and respect for the festival?
Culpability in error. The foundational thing really missing here in this statement in my view is very simply, “Sorry, we made a mistake” But then as I explained earlier this is perhaps because the festival programmers and producers do not believe they have made any mistake here. At the risk of reading between the lines too much this statement indicates a tone of “I stand by the programming decision but feel compelled by the many dissenting voices to accommodate their displeasure by re-scheduling”.
The decision to reschedule and not cancel altogether strikes me as tokenistic and ultimately unhelpful in addressing the concerns of the thousands of people who signed the petition.
And let’s be clear, rescheduling the event for two days later does not put it “outside a festival context”. By inviting weekend ticket holders to attend the rescheduled event it becomes a de facto addendum, satellite event.
Zita Holbourne is Co-Founder of BARAC UK, an equality campaigner and activist. Holbourne wrote an open letter to Southbank Centre in which she said, “I campaign on the equality impact of cuts. Because of funding cuts over the past few years many women who experience sexual violence have no place to go for help or support because specialist women services and women’s refuges have been forced to close down.
If you wanted to hold a session about rape at your event you could have chosen to focus it on ending sexual violence as a weapon in war, prevention, challenging the type of cuts I mention above rather than trivialising rape, profiting from it and creating a hostile environment for many women at WOW.
Unless you withdraw the “South of Forgiveness” I have no choice and will not be mentoring or attending at all.”
I think Holbourne speaks for many of us who were appalled at the initial decision to programme this talk and who are now left with a bad taste in our mouths from the latest statement from Southbank. There ARE powerful ways to talk about white privilege, harmful gender stereotypes and owning up to harm you have caused others. Stranger did not do this well in his talk, and sadly in my view nor have Southbank .
Cancellation, not rescheduling is what’s required here. When platforming and profiting a sex offender the day of the week matters little.